The Archaeology of the Ignorance of Pre-Internet Ordinary Life

by John Holbo on March 16, 2010

Long ago, before there was the internet, I was so much more persistently and baldly ignorant about various and sundry things that interested me. Example: I just got a guitar – well, in October – and resolved that I would finally learn to play after all these years. Needless to say, I can find lots of videos and online resources. It’s highly satisfactory. When I tried to learn guitar in college, only to give up quickly, I had none of that. (I had a teacher but, looking back, he was a bad teacher. Probably it was my fault, too.) I’m a lefty, which means I now occasionally Google up things to to with left-handed guitar. Which means that I randomly found a video of former Cars guitarist Elliot Easton musing about growing up a left-handed guitarist. Not a thrilling interview, but he remarks, off-handedly, that he had been playing left-handed for some time before learning that left-handed guitars – not just restrung righties – actually existed. And then he muses generally about how little information you had. You were just staring at a few LP covers, wondering what the hell was going on. You were pretty sure to suffer some or other stupidly and persistently huge hole in your knowledge-base, due to the accident of not happening to know someone who told you the thing any fool would Google up in a minute today. I think about the things that interested me, growing up – like science fiction novels, for example. And comics. And I realize that almost everything I knew about these things that mattered a great deal to me (did you notice?) I learned by talking to about six people, four of whom were kids like me, and going to four different stores in my hometown. (And sex. Did I mention that, as a young teen, I was quite intrigued by the topic of sex, but – sadly – lacked reliable sources of information and reportage on the subject.) I suspect you could provide your own examples, if you grew up pre-internet. And I feel it’s pretty important, somehow, that those of you who grew up post-internet probably can’t provide your own examples. Or rather fewer.

Of course, this is a flagrantly obvious thought: the internet = important! I don’t really know what to say about how it has made a difference, specifically, that things like serious young left-handed guitarists who don’t even know there are such things as left-handed guitars are now more infrequent occurrences. These sorts of minor epistemic follies tended to elude systematic documentation. Information now gets spread more easily and therefore efficiently. That’s for sure! But I feel there’s more to be said about the ways in which the shape of an individual’s whole view of the world used to be a lot less …(what’s the word?) … internetish? Maybe I should Google up something about Marx + “the idiocy of rural life”. I know that’s Marx’s phrase but I’ve never read what he had to say on the subject. (Well there you go!) Possibly there is some analogy to be drawn.

{ 132 comments }

1

Martin Wisse 03.16.10 at 9:24 am

The converse is also true: information that’s not on the internet — which despite appearances is still quite extensive — is much harder to find nowadays. Both because it isn’t as readily available as pre-internet, not as well maintained too, but also because one’s information acquiring skills have atrophied.

2

Emma (the first one) 03.16.10 at 9:46 am

On the third hand, one was also limited to a much smaller slice of cultural achievement — that which was current in one’s social circle and popular culture. Which led to strange knowledges and huge gaps. I could sing all of Oklahoma, because my parents had the record, but could only listen to the pop music of the actual year I was in, because that was all that was on the radio station I could get on my transistor. You might see West Side Story on the telly, late one Saturday night, and have to wait years to see it again. No culture on demand. No way to know who was the third spear carrier in the back row of the black and white movie who looked strangely familiar. I’m so much less tolerant of those gaps now.

3

Sage Ross 03.16.10 at 10:58 am

A related issue is the “narrative complexity” argument advanced by Jason Mittell. Before the Internet (and other newi-sh technologies) television was largely constrained to episodic formats where viewers needn’t have seen every previous episode and could be expected to have forgotten some minor issue that later get in the writers’ way. Both the instant availability of a shows entire run and the capacity for fan groups to analyze and recontextualize makes it possible to create shows that demand a lot more from the audience and that have more complex and interesting narrative structure.

Steven Berlin Johnson has a more general version of this argument (I gather) in Everything Bad Is Good for You.

4

Grim 03.16.10 at 11:15 am

John, so what do you do when you Google a phrase or a gaggle of words and it comes back with 2,000,000 hits ? And the one that’s really going to tell you what you need to know is number 1,967,256 in the list ?

Do you long for a bit of selective kwic to put with the unselective deluge of kwoc ? Or do you just limit yourself to a quick scan of the first 20 or so and then settle for the Wikipedia entry ?

I take it you have read and enjoyed Isaac Asimov’s “The Jokester”.

5

tomslee 03.16.10 at 11:18 am

“Did I mention that, as a young teen, I was quite intrigued by the topic of sex, but – sadly – lacked reliable sources of information and reportage on the subject”

[snark]Ah yes, the Internet, always a reliable source of information and reportage about sex.[/snark]

6

Phil 03.16.10 at 11:45 am

Both the instant availability of a shows entire run and the capacity for fan groups to analyze and recontextualize makes it possible to create shows that demand a lot more from the audience and that have more complex and interesting narrative structure.

Not sure about this. Jenny Turner made this claim about the new Doctor Who in the LRB, about 500 words after claiming that the particular conditions of production of the old Doctor Who tended to produce complex & extended plots, obscure references, fannish in-jokes etc. When you get down to it, it’s the difference between “lots of space to fill, the writers are fans and they know nobody cares about the show except other fans, so they throw lots of stuff in” and “lots of space to fill, the writers are fans themselves and they know that other fans care about the show, so they throw lots of stuff in” – i.e. not much.

Back to the OP:

You were just staring at a few LP covers, wondering what the hell was going on.

Staring? Gazing. Dreaming. Communing with the artist. Entering the world of the artist, through the portal of the LP.

(No, I’m not fetishising ignorance. Actually, hang on, I am fetishising ignorance. It is possible to say that a gain in knowledge is a loss of quality, if the quality of the experience was (a) based on fantasy and (b) genuine and valuable in itself.)

almost everything I knew about these things that mattered a great deal to me (did you notice?) I learned by talking to about six people, four of whom were kids like me, and going to four different stores in my hometown

And are there four different stores in your hometown now? Twenty years ago there were six bookshops in the centre of Manchester (four independents, a big Waterstone’s and a big Dillon’s); there are two now (both Waterstone’s). There’s much more available now, from much fewer places.

7

magistra 03.16.10 at 12:30 pm

I am very conscious of the difference the web has made, coming from the perspective of someone who was trained as a librarian in the late 1980s. We had whole courses at library school on reference sources; there were books written about the reference interview, showing how an well-trained and ingenious librarian could take a user’s unformed need for information, and track down precisely what they needed. Because a lot of this information was available back then, if you could find the particular obscure source that discussed it. There were things like encyclopaedias of comic books and reference books giving film casts, (and probably advice for the left handed guitarist) but they just weren’t widely available.

There are a lot of separate developments that have together made a big difference. One is full-text search – as a historian I’ve found quotes in collections of source texts that my predecessors would have missed, because they’re hidden in 100 pages of otherwise irrelevant material. And it’s a big help to be able to find song lyrics without necessarily having to know the first line of a song.

The creation of virtual communities via the net is also very useful for any unusual interests. If you’re interested in football you can probably find one of your acquaintances who likes the same thing. if you’re interested in real tennis, it’s a lot harder. I taught myself Latin along with a group on the net back in around 1995: I don’t know how a big a town you’d need to be able to support a physical group doing something obscure like that. And a lot of people don’t want to go round asking their real-life acquaintances if they want to talk about being gay or depression or folk dancing in case they get a hostile reaction.

Cheapness and ease of publishing, and the ability to target markets is also important. Even if you knew a lot about sci-fi, unless you had a bookload of information on a popular topic and could persuade a publisher to publish it and a bookseller to stock it, how would you make it widely available before self-publishing on the web?

As for the effect of all this happening, other than putting reference librarians out of a job, I think there are a couple of particularly interesting wider issues. One is that the concept of what is ‘normal’ is getting redefined. If you are into China bluegrass or believe in alien abductions, you are no longer an isolated freak (though you may still be a freak); you have support for your interests or views. The other is the increasing significance of partially-reliable sources. If you wanted to know about Blake’s Seven or George III twenty years ago, you could go and find a reference book (which would probably have been edited very carefully) or you could rely on what you and your friends could remember (probably very inaccurate). Now you can go to Wikipedia or other online sites and get information which is probably mostly right, but not as rigorously checked as a book would have been. All this is anathema to proper reference librarians, but for many things, probably/partially right information is enough. I look up several dozen trivial queries a day: not worth going to the library (or even digging out a reference book) for, but nice to know.

8

moe 03.16.10 at 12:43 pm

Gosh, yes there’s a wealth of information on that there internet. And I read it all. But somehow I think it is make me dumber.

9

Yarrow 03.16.10 at 1:09 pm

[snark]Ah yes, the Internet, always a reliable source of information and reportage about sex.[/snark]

tomslee, have you been in to a junior high school library? In, say, 1963?

10

Barry 03.16.10 at 1:10 pm

Martin Wisse 03.16.10 at 9:24 am

“The converse is also true: information that’s not on the internet—which despite appearances is still quite extensive— is much harder to find nowadays. Both because it isn’t as readily available as pre-internet, not as well maintained too, but also because one’s information acquiring skills have atrophied.”

Combined with the fact that the old-fashioned way is still hard, and we see that now.
When there were no cars and trains, it was hard to get almost anywhere; when there were trains but no cars, every place on the railways was easy to get to, but 10 miles off of the railroad was still hard.

11

engels 03.16.10 at 1:19 pm

I don’t know whether Draper’s reading of Marx is right but one could certainly argue that idiocy in Draper’s sense — isolation, withdrawal from politics — has increased thanks to the internet.

12

Uncle Kvetch 03.16.10 at 2:03 pm

No culture on demand.

This.

I subscribed to Trouser Press starting in high school (around 1980 or ’81), as my musical tastes began drifting from prog to “new wave.” I vividly remember reading about bands and artists that sounded so intriguing, so right up my alley, and thinking “Oh well, another one I’ll probably never hear.” There was no “alternative” radio where I happened to be (suburban Philadelphia), commercial radio never went “edgier” than, say, the Police, independent record shops specializing in punk/new wave were very few and far between, and besides, I didn’t have the spare cash to just go buying records without hearing at least a sample anyway.

The only ray of sunshine was the precious mixtapes sent by a penpal in the UK.

And now? Streaming audio (BBC6 [now and forever!] and a slew of US indie/college stations), Pandora, last.fm, eMusic, and on and on and on…I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the difference. Virtually everything about being a fan of indie/alternative music changed with the Internet, and for the better.

13

ajay 03.16.10 at 2:06 pm

Twenty years ago there were six bookshops in the centre of Manchester (four independents, a big Waterstone’s and a big Dillon’s); there are two now (both Waterstone’s). There’s much more available now, from much fewer places.

The wonderful thing about the internet is that nowadays, when someone says “there are only two bookshops in the centre of Manchester” it’s very easy to find out that they’re not correct.
Twenty years ago, you would have had to say “er, is that really true? Sounds a bit unlikely. Manchester’s a big place, and it’s got a university or two – surely there must be more than two bookshops there.”

14

Z 03.16.10 at 2:08 pm

One is that the concept of what is ‘normal’ is getting redefined.

That is one of my pet quasi-sociological theory: greater availability of social contact-be it because of urbanization or because of a new technology (public libraries, the net…)-entails greater polarization in the construction of tastes and interests. Because nowadays, not only can you discuss chinese bluegrass read academic blogs and not pass for a freak, you can spend your free time doing exclusively this if this what you want, and you might even get some social credit from it (I am always a bit puzzled by, and grateful for, people answering queries in forums about technological gadgets).

I wonder if this has an impact in the way we come to envision the society we live in, and if so for the good or the bad: on the one hand, it is a breath of fresh air to escape conformity, on the other perhaps in the long run, our capability of communicating with someone not sharing the same interests is impaired.

15

ajay 03.16.10 at 2:08 pm

one could certainly argue that idiocy in Draper’s sense—isolation, withdrawal from politics—has increased thanks to the internet.

If one had been living in a deep, dark cave for the last decade, one could indeed argue that.

16

engels 03.16.10 at 2:20 pm

Also, I’m sceptical about the internet enabling people to ‘escape conformity’. My sense is that blog comments sections can be very conformist, even authoritarian places, in many ways where even mild forms of sincere dissent often provoke crude forms of sanctioning: ridicule, abuse, dismissive comments from multiple people, etc.

17

ajay 03.16.10 at 2:27 pm

15: ah, but I think the point is that they’re not all conformist in the same way; whatever your views, there’s a bit of the Net for you. Offline, you’re stuck with your geographical surroundings.
And it’s certainly not true that all comment sections are intolerant of dissent: some are, some aren’t. You just have to find a congenial one.

18

engels 03.16.10 at 2:30 pm

If one had been living in a deep, dark cave for the last decade, one could indeed argue that.

As long as it had broadband…

19

Z 03.16.10 at 2:30 pm

even mild forms of sincere dissent often provoke crude forms of sanctioning: ridicule, abuse, dismissive comments from multiple people, etc.

Sure, but there is presumably another (admittedly equally conformist) blog where your comments will elicit fervent words of appreciation, and it is way easier to find this other blog than to change the mind or tastes of people surrounding you. This is what I meant by the rather poor choice of words “escape conformity”. When I was in high-school, one of my main hobby was reading Plato. Not many people I could interact with in my small country town interested in that subject. I dealt with it fine, but I would have liked reading some John Holbo from times to times.

20

ajay 03.16.10 at 2:36 pm

17: I really don’t think that you could look at the last ten years – which have seen any number of online campaigns on all sorts of issues and the “netroots” phenomenon in the US – and say that the internet has brought about any sort of “withdrawal from politics”. It’s now vastly easier to get all sorts of political information – news archives, polling data, parliamentary proceedings – and to start discussions and run campaigns. Maybe I’m misunderstanding what you meant by “idiocy in Draper’s sense—isolation, withdrawal from politics”.

21

alex 03.16.10 at 3:44 pm

@15, 16, 18 – Nope, wherever I go, I am scorned and reviled. None of that conformity crap for me!

22

Metatone 03.16.10 at 3:49 pm

ajay – so how many bookshops are there in the centre of Manchester? I

In particular, though the poster didn’t specify, how many general subject bookshops? As opposed to the legal bookshop, the visual arts bookshop (which exist because of the Uni and while I like the vis art one in particular, it has a pretty narrow range) and of course… Forbidden Planet… purveyors of tentacle porn to the masses…

23

JMc 03.16.10 at 3:56 pm

Have you been successful at learning how to play the guitar with the internet (I assume) being your primary source of instruction?

24

dsquared 03.16.10 at 4:07 pm

And it’s certainly not true that all comment sections are intolerant of dissent: some are, some aren’t. You just have to find a congenial one.

I am considering this as a new strapline for my blog, although with the words “You just have to” replaced by “Why don’t you fuck off and”.

25

Phil 03.16.10 at 4:08 pm

OK, there was a radical bookshop and three general-purpose independents (Willshaw’s, Sherratt & Hughes’ and one at the top of Oxford St whose name I forget), plus Dillon’s and Waterstone’s. Plus the art bookshops in the Cornerhouse & the Athenaeum (galleries), and Hammick’s legal/medical bookshop, and the film bookshop on Piccadilly, and Blackwell’s & Forbidden Planet near the university, none of which I counted before. Now the radical bookshop, the three general independents, the film bookshop and Dillon’s have all gone; on the other hand, there’s a second Waterstone’s and Forbidden Planet have moved into the centre of town.

So, using more generous definitions of ‘bookshop’ and ‘town centre’, that’s

1990
Major chain: 2 (2 chains)
General: 3
Radical: 1
University: 1
Specialist: 5

2010
Major chain: 2 (1 chain)
General: 0
Radical: 0
University: 1
Specialist: 4

26

engels 03.16.10 at 4:23 pm

Ajay — so please refresh my memory. Five of the most epoch-making online campaigns to have shaken UK politics in the last decade? I’m not looking for the equivalent of Paris 68. Maybe the poll tax riots…

(And I don’t think the fact that people take part in some [mostly rather ineffectual afaics] political activities online disproves the view that the internet reinforces long-term trends of atomisation and Political disengagement)

27

Phil 03.16.10 at 5:11 pm

I don’t think the fact that people take part in some [mostly rather ineffectual afaics] political activities online disproves the view that the internet reinforces long-term trends of atomisation and Political disengagement

I don’t think there’s much evidence either way. Here’s a comment I left elsewhere:

I heard a talk by John Curtice a while back, presenting the results of a study of political activism & the Net. The research question was essentially, has pervasive Internet access been a force for good in terms of expanding participation, i.e. were people who wouldn’t previously have been informed & involved using the Net to get informed & involved? His answer was, um, no, not really – political activism was a minority pursuit & always had been, and the Net hadn’t made it any less of one. Afterwards I asked the Shirky/Howard Dean question – had the Net been a negative influence, in that the frictionless ease of Net activism actually attracted people away from real-world politics? His answer was, um, no, not really – political activism was a minority pursuit & always had been, and in all probability the same minority were going to the physical meetings and joining the Facebook groups.

28

Kenny Easwaran 03.16.10 at 5:21 pm

ajay – going in a slightly different direction from what Engels said, I suspect that the internet has made political participation a much more important part of some people’s lives, and probably a much less important part of other people’s lives. Just as it has made Hollywood celebrities a much larger part of some people’s lives, and a much smaller part of others’ (because they can hang out on their Senegalese film blogs and get enough other internet entertainment that they never watch TV and see an ad for a Hollywood movie).

29

theAmericanist 03.16.10 at 5:33 pm

Actually, the original post had a better example of the impact of the Internet on the availability, quantity, and quality of information: guitars.

Never mind the lefties: even the most ordinary 12 bar banger who can’t read music can still get chords and tab for an astonishing range of music online — and this, despite the concerted legal efforts of the music copyright industry to shut down sites like OLGA, etc. (I have sheet music for everything the Beatles ever recorded, but if I want to know the chords for something in a hurry I am much more likely to hit a bookmark than open a book on the music stand.)

It tends to prove Segovia’s observation that the guitar is the easiest instrument to play — badly; and among the hardest to play really well.

Access to all those chord progressions and tablature can vastly increase any player’s repertoire — but what it can NOT do, is make you a better player. For that, you simply have to PLAY — a lot, and with as wide a range of people as you can; never pass up the opportunity to make music with better musicians than you, and always, always, listen more. Your ears are more important than your fingers.

And much of what is posted is flat-out wrong — in the wrong key, or with a mis-heard melody (the musical equivalent of singing “excuse me, while I kiss this guy”, or “slow-walking Walter/the fire engine guy”, or “the girl with colitis walks by” — okay, I’ll stop now); it’s often just some high school kid’s riff that he thinks sounds like Jimmy Page.

The availability of essentially free music in all forms has pretty dissolved the business model for the industry, which is gonna mess with musicians for a very long time.

But without the Internet, anybody who listens, and especially anybody who plays, would be living in a different and less kewl world.

30

piglet 03.16.10 at 5:48 pm

As a member of the pre-internet generation I share Holbo’s sentiment and I strongly disagree with Grim: “John, so what do you do when you Google a phrase or a gaggle of words and it comes back with 2,000,000 hits ? And the one that’s really going to tell you what you need to know is number 1,967,256 in the list ?”

It simply doesn’t happen that way. Employing a minimum of common sense will lead to a successful internet search within minutes at most, 99% of the time. Filtering out the noise is usually easy. A typical example I remember was the “Q33 NY” hoax that appeared after 9/11. Probably everybody at the time got a forwarded email from a coworker making the astonishing but true statement that the flight number Q33 NY, rendered in wingdings, revealed a hidden message. 10 seconds of googling and I knew – as everybody could have known – that the flight number was a hoax. The question that inevitably comes up is why the astonishing information power of the internet doesn’t seem to make us collectively smarter. All those people believing in conspiracy theories, from 9/11 truthers to climate change deniers to tea baggers, could correct their misconceptions by doing some internet search if they only wanted to. But they don’t. The internet doesn’t seem to have reduced public ignorance although it has demolished any excuse that might have existed. I’m sure there is an explanation for this phenomenon somewhere on the internet but I’m too lazy right now to research it.

As a college instructor I give assignments that require students to look up some data on the web and to my surprise, many of the kids, who must have grown up with the internet, had difficulty with that. I am curious who has made the same experience?

31

Dogen 03.16.10 at 5:49 pm

Back to the original post.

Another thing: there’s more than information/data available, there are functions–tangible hings one can accomplish simply and easily that used to take gobs of time. Eg: paying taxes, communicating with friends, working on projects with others.

Which can lead to another thing: the digital divide. What a cliche. And yet, really, can you imagine how hard it would be to function effectively in society without it?

32

Platonist 03.16.10 at 5:53 pm

Engels, you’re admirably restrained irony in #15 was just lovely, though I’m hoping it wasn’t missed. And the original point about idiocy was perfectly plausible.

But you’ll have to find a blog with an audience preselected to applaud such opinions mindlessly, since the internet has made it impossible for anyone to seriously consider any idea they don’t already know they agree with. It’s the pandora of the intellect. “You believe x? Well, you’ll love already having believed y!”

But this is the greater irony of the line of thinking that keeps getting repeated here: “Why, I can now get immediate gratification from an audience/set of commodities tailor made to my prefabricated prejudices and interests. How can that NOT be a big boost to human progress?”

33

lemmy caution 03.16.10 at 6:09 pm

I completely agree with John. It is pretty amazing what you can learn now about things.

As a college instructor I give assignments that require students to look up some data on the web and to my surprise, many of the kids, who must have grown up with the internet, had difficulty with that. I am curious who has made the same experience?

I can find things on the internet a lot faster than other people I know. It takes a certain level of experience to find things on the internet efficiently. Also, I think a lot of extroverts use the internet in a different way than introverts who do a lot of googling for obscure info.

34

Adam 03.16.10 at 6:16 pm

“Back in the day do you know how people figured shit out

they fuckin went for it

35

geo 03.16.10 at 6:18 pm

A kindred (I think) misgiving to Engels’: Certainly the Internet makes it possible to learn much more much faster about many more things. But it also (along with TV, another mixed blessing) makes it easier than ever before to waste time, scatter attention, and sit on one’s ass. According to the latest Harper’s Index, the average American spends 7.6 hours each day hooked up to one or another electronic device: television, computer, cell phone, etc. That’s 7.6 hours not spent meditating, walking in the woods, singing in harmony, doing Tai Chi, reading Proust, or contemplating the beauties of string theory.

36

engels 03.16.10 at 6:23 pm

According to the latest Harper’s Index, the average American spends 7.6 hours each day hooked up to one or another electronic device: television, computer, cell phone, etc. That’s 7.6 hours not spent meditating, walking in the woods, singing in harmony, doing Tai Chi, reading Proust, or contemplating the beauties of string theory.

You’re assuming they weren’t checking Facebook on their Blackberry while singing in harmony or talking (loudly) on their cellphone while walking in the woods. But other than that: well said.

37

piglet 03.16.10 at 6:52 pm

“It takes a certain level of experience to find things on the internet efficiently.” In most cases, the most efficient way is still to paste the question or assignment into google and sort through what comes up. But I agree experience helps and I wonder what effort schools are making to teaching this particular skill.

38

Chris Bertram 03.16.10 at 7:40 pm

I’m not sure that 20 years is the right timescale for looking at the rise and decline of bookshops since there was a bookselling boom in that period. In Bristol in 1990 the situation was pretty dire, then it got much much better, but now Amazon is killing them all off pretty effectively in the past year or so we’ve lost a lot.

39

magistra 03.16.10 at 7:43 pm

According to the latest Harper’s Index, the average American spends 7.6 hours each day hooked up to one or another electronic device: television, computer, cell phone, etc. That’s 7.6 hours not spent meditating, walking in the woods, singing in harmony, doing Tai Chi, reading Proust, or contemplating the beauties of string theory.

Who do you know who really spent their time doing this pre-Internet? I spent a lot of my adolescense doing jigsaw puzzles and reading not very good novels; at one point my brother spent several months compiling statistics about different models of chainsaw. I believe during his PhD my father used to procrastinate by playing patience (at a period so long ago that he played with real cards, not on a computer).

40

JoB 03.16.10 at 7:56 pm

Adolescence-wise, I distinctly remember doing absolutely nothing for most of the time (but maybe that counts as meditation?).

41

geo 03.16.10 at 8:15 pm

magistra: Who do you know who really spent their time doing this pre-Internet?
Not me, certainly, even though (I’m embarrassed to say) I had been an adult, not an adolescent, for quite a while before the Internet arrived. I’m only wondering whether, just as the existence (and aggressive marketing) of junk food makes it harder for even a healthy person to eat well, and just as the existence of TV makes it easier for even the most sociable person to become a couch potato, perhaps the vastly greater range and speed of horizontal motion enabled by the Internet makes it a little less likely that even the most centered of us will go inward and downward – which is, after all, where much, perhaps most, of the action is, spiritually speaking.

42

JoB 03.16.10 at 8:20 pm

geo, so jiggsaw puzzles beat wikipedia, spiritually speaking?

43

des von bladet 03.16.10 at 8:29 pm

So what kind of guitar did you get, then? The guys over at the Harmony Central boards say red ones have the most sustain…

(When I think these thoughts it is mostly about YouTube and how little it turns out I actually missed by spending the intervening time having to only wonder what perennial Guitar Player Readers’ Polls favourites might sound like. But the principle stands.)

44

Peter Erwin 03.16.10 at 9:36 pm

That’s 7.6 hours not spent meditating, walking in the woods, singing in harmony, doing Tai Chi, reading Proust, or contemplating the beauties of string theory.

Hmm… I’m not sure you can really rule out the last two. You can certainly read Proust online, at any rate.

45

kid bitzer 03.16.10 at 9:39 pm

it’s true, things were a lot better back on the veldt, when we could practice tai chi, read proust, and contemplate string theory. then modernity came along and fucked it all up.

46

Philip 03.16.10 at 10:09 pm

In 1996 I was 15 when my parents got a PC and dial-up internet connection. Any time spent on the internet blocked the phone line and ran up a bill and even downloading a picture took a significant amount of time. So although the internet made information more accessible you still had to think about how to get it efficiently and be sure it was reliable.

Now with broadband making information even more accessible, to those who can afford it, I wonder how discerning this generation of kids are over the information they receive. After all the internet can spread wrong information too,

47

Platonist 03.16.10 at 10:10 pm

#33
Lemmy Caution, say it isn’t so! Siding with the Super Cerveaux Electroniques: [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alphaville_(film)]

48

piglet 03.16.10 at 10:20 pm

“After all the internet can spread wrong information too”

Of course, and some argue that the internet *mainly* spreads wrong information. I don’t agree with that. I benefit so much from what the internet has to offer and I wouldn’t know what to do without. As to misinformation, the internet has certainly made it easier to spread but it has also made it exponentially easier to check.

49

John Holbo 03.16.10 at 11:21 pm

“Have you been successful at learning how to play the guitar with the internet (I assume) being your primary source of instruction?”

Actually, I’m pretty pleased with my progress. I’ve signed up with jamplay.com – a paysite – that has thousands of hours of lesson videos [well, at least several hundred]. Better than just browsing YouTube. Also, there’s free tabs all over the place, of course.

50

Carl 03.16.10 at 11:30 pm

John – Coincidentally thinking along similar lines recently. Same starting point, but what struck me was how much the entire course of my childhood would have been different if the Internet had existed. For one example, (in my case bikes, not guitars) all that time & effort I spent trying to get jobs at bike shops so that I could read the shop catalogs, rifle through the spare parts, learn about the various standards for dimensions, etc. I had zero interest in actually working there apart from gaining access to all that precious information. For others: record shops, bookstores, whatever. It was normal! Finding ways to make the world surrender information was what you did. All that is gone. And of course, information did not come to us pre-digested, hyperlinked, etc.

You are right that the consequences are vast. Maybe Dreyfus has more to say?

51

sg 03.16.10 at 11:53 pm

There’s interesting discussion of this in role-playing blogs, because when we started the hobby in the 70s and 80s, with no internet and few people we knew doing it, we all had to find our own way through the hobby (at least until a few magazines had been established and we had the money to get them). Now, you can check online to find out what style people use, what they’re doing and why they do it. The hobby remains disconnected physically but you can find out what other people are doing.

The same is also true for living in a new town. I arrived in my new town in Japan one month ago but thanks to the internet I’ve already found a role-playing group, a kick-boxing gym, some conversation partners and a job. When my parents were doing this sort of moving back in the 70s and 80s, they would have seen a few photos of their new town in a book, and would need to seek out all other things the hard way. Plus, of course, in rural Japan they would have NO access to news about their home country – let alone the ability to maintain contact with those with a similar political interest or hobby from the comfort of their own home.

I remember life before the internet. I don’t remember how I managed to live it!

52

Emma (the first one) 03.17.10 at 12:06 am

Phillip @ 46 “I wonder how discerning this generation of kids are over the information they receive. “

My impression is that my kids, in primary (elementary) school in Australia, are being taught to be quite discerning. My nine-year-old, who has never known a time when we didn’t have the laptop out to look up information on demand, and who discovered the joys of lego assembly videos on Youtube at the age of six, is quite a savvy Google searcher, and is set homework assignments to research topics online, and rate the information he finds according to the kind of website he finds it on. I worry about the kids in his class without his privileged access to supervised computer time at home, though. They are the ones who won’t get the benefits.

Certainly, Australian school syllabi include internet analysis, interpretation and evaluation, much the way my kids now in their twenties were taught to interpret television advertising critically. If you interrogate *any* source critically, you’ll get a better idea of its veracity and trustworthiness, from the New York Times to Wikipedia. My kids are learning that.

53

tomslee 03.17.10 at 12:45 am

There is a model of taste exploration here that I find surprising on this of all blogs – see ajay, sg, piglet, Uncle Kvetch and maybe others. It goes that people have pre-defined tastes (alternative music, role-playing games, Japanese gong music, whatever) but pre-Internet could not explore them because of a lack of information. Along comes the Internet, removes that roadblock (lowers the transaction costs, if we want to play the Coasean game) and everyone gets to explore their own particular niche taste.

But in reality, taste is a social phenomenon, as anyone else who lived through the clothing styles of the ’70s must agree. We adopt our tastes from those around us rather than pluck them from the air or from our genes; that’s why music scenes happen geographically. And for most people, most of the time, information is not the barrier to pursuing their tastes or forming their groups.

Not that I’d want to generalize or anything.

54

sg 03.17.10 at 1:01 am

I agree Tomslee that we find our tastes from our friends etc., but the internet has significant effects on even this introduction to new tastes. For example, I discovered Miyazaki Hayao (of Spirited Away fame) in maybe 1991 at a university anime festival, but at that time with no internet there was a very small selection of available anime, and a lot of it very nasty or poor quality. I had to wait years to see more of the same movie maker, let alone find other movie makers I liked. Now, that same university anime society would find it much easier to seek out and obtain movies to watch, making it correspondingly easier for me to diversify my tastes in meat life.

55

Substance McGravitas 03.17.10 at 1:46 am

but the internet has significant effects on even this introduction to new tastes

Algorithms can influence your tastes now; doesn’t require direct communication with people, although a lot of those algorithms rely on some kind of “similar tastes” idea.

But it’s not just about taste-making and consumption: almost everybody I know now creates – with text, pictures, video, and sound – in a way that was awfully difficult 20 years ago, and they share those creations with others. As with the guitar-playing referenced above, it is now awfully easy to learn to make stuff, and the internet itself provides tools for both instruction and creation.

56

tomslee 03.17.10 at 2:43 am

@SMcG: I do know that “it’s not just about taste-making and consumption”, but it’s also necessary to talk about individual aspects of culture if we are to talk about anything. I know you don’t mean it, but I’ve been in too many arguments where “it’s not just that” or “it’s not about that” ends in leaping from rhetorical stone to rhetorical boulder without ever landing anywhere.

And I do wonder what those people who are creating stuff were doing 20 years ago. Myself, I was writing less but I was playing music more, and yes, even sharing it with others (poor them) although you won’t find a record of that creation anywhere because it was in houses and bars. Some of the apparent flourishing of creation is simply a flourishing of the archiving of creation and I remain sceptical about how much more actual creation is going on (however one quantifies that).

57

Substance McGravitas 03.17.10 at 3:34 am

My anecdata draws from a pool of weirdos, so I’m willing to downgrade the rest of humanity in acknowledgement of my super-cool elitinessism. And the technology-enhanced ease of culture-creation is kinda hard to separate from whatever it is I’m claiming for the internet.

What might you make of picture-taking (perhaps as distinguished from photography)?Flickr claims 4900 uploads in the last minute. Not all art, perhaps, but a good bunch always show up with ambition. It’s kind of hard to know if the orgy of picture-taking going on in the wealthier world would happen if the technology was the same minus the internet, but my own bet is that there’d be a whole lot less photography without it.

58

bad Jim 03.17.10 at 5:58 am

No, the orgy of photography has been going on since the technology was invented; viz my father, his brother, my grandfather. We have a darkroom, only used now for seasonal storage. Were it not for photography many of us would have continued in my grandmother’s and sister’s domain of pen and ink, in a Beardsleyesque vein or another.

Boxes full of black-and-white negatives, Ektachrome slides, 8mm movies, Super-8, VHS. Film of two home births. Jokes about Japs with glass navels long predate the advent of digital photography, which predates the consensual broadcast of images. It wasn’t that long ago that emailing everyone our latest picture was problematic when some of us had file size limits on our mailboxes.

The web facilitates distribution. We were doing production already.

59

Substance McGravitas 03.17.10 at 6:30 am

Luxury! We had to do with a multi-track recording studio and an engineer who worked PART-TIME.

60

maidhc 03.17.10 at 7:01 am

I can remember travelling to the Isle of Man in the 1980s and being unable to find out the ferry schedules from the US, a lack of information that wasted my time and money, and would be trivial to find out now.

I learned guitar in the old days and I would have killed for what is available now. I used to borrow songbooks from the library and copy things out by hand because photocopies were too expensive. There was so much music that was not available at all, or if available was priced far above my means.

On the other hand, maybe I’m being a curmudgeon, but I don’t hear very many young guitarists who have taken much inspiration from all the resources that are available. Grumble grumble you kids get off my vinyl!

61

John Quiggin 03.17.10 at 8:59 am

I can barely remember when the Internet wasn’t around at all, though the pre-Internet period was more than half my life. But I wonder how my experience of gradual growth from USENET on differs from that of people whose first encounter was with the Web, or with Web 2.0.

62

ajay 03.17.10 at 9:38 am

Ajay—so please refresh my memory. Five of the most epoch-making online campaigns to have shaken UK politics in the last decade?

Oh, just UK politics now? Your goalposts, let me shift them. If I came up with five, I suspect engels would rapidly come back with “Ah, but the politics of Doncaster City Council have been entirely untouched by the internet!”

As for geo’s lament for the pre-internet days of old maids reading Proust in church in the morning mist: read Jane Austen. It was perfectly possible to spend most of your life sitting on your ass in the days before the Internet. That’s why three-decker novels existed.

63

alex 03.17.10 at 9:44 am

The internet – speading your snarky remarks amongst more than just your circle of friends in the pub since 1996…

64

alex 03.17.10 at 9:44 am

Fuck. *spreading. I’ll get me coat…

65

Alex 03.17.10 at 9:50 am

26: Your vital contribution to the struggle has been noted, and will be rewarded with a post no higher than assistant party secretary in the Directorate of Public Morals when the revolution comes.

35: Is there anything in the world more hilarious than posting snarky blog comments about how kids-these-days are spending too much time posting snarky blog comments rather than walking in the woods, practicing tai chi, or “contemplating the beauty of string theory”?

66

Alex 03.17.10 at 9:53 am

Also, if I’d wanted to contemplate the beauty of string theory in, say, 1989, I’d probably have been much harder put to know anything up-to-date about it…

67

Nabakov 03.17.10 at 10:26 am

The Internet! Spreading the Madness of Crowds since 1969.

On the other hand an immense boon for small entrepreneurs with home-baked ambitions.

Personally, the internet has done wonders for my aging sex life (ex-girlfriends with fond memories sniffing me out on Facebook – “Oh no, I’m divorced now. And I see you haven’t gone bald. Or married”) and ability to source material lifestyle enhancements such as plastic jellyfish, Czeck absinthe and books by Rafi Zabor.

Look, the one truly wonderful advantage of the internet is that it’s the world’s first information and communication system where no one is in charge. Or could be.

68

Nabakov 03.17.10 at 10:32 am

Also, could anything else in the history of the world allow the hatching of generative and global crowd-sourcing funk like this?

The Mother of All Funky Human Interaction.

69

Nabakov 03.17.10 at 10:44 am

Eratta alert!
Insert “truly global” between “first” and “information”.

For “sausage” read “hostage” throughout.

On page 221, substitute “Hegel” for “HP Lovecraft” and read accordingly.

70

Nabakov 03.17.10 at 10:46 am

Errata alert…

For “eratta” read “errata”.

71

alex 03.17.10 at 11:17 am

And some of those ex-girlfriends have now doubtless reached the age of majority, too.

Ach! To confuse the artist and his work, how vulgar!

72

tomslee 03.17.10 at 1:18 pm

Yes, if you write a list of good things about the Internet you can make a long list, from Nabakov’s sex life to current information about string theory (which I’m sure we are all reading).

But if you want to ask how the Internet has changed things then the story has to include those activities it has displaced. Some would claim that we all had a mis-spent cognitive surplus spent passively consuming mass-produced conformist TV fodder in our houses made of ticky-tacky, so what we see now is a flowering of creativity as we throw off our mass-production shackles, but does anyone take that seriously? In some cases we see that one big global institution has displaced many smaller and more varied institutions – see Manchester bookshops (25). In other cases time spent online has displaced time spent “bowling with others” – as in, the physical area in which today’s children spend their time compared to a generation ago has shrunk, contracting from the street to the bedroom. End result, some good, some bad, many changes in cultural forms but no blossoming of a new level of cultural creation.

Of course, it does let me comment on blogs when I should be doing my paid work, so there are benefits.

73

engels 03.17.10 at 1:25 pm

Ajay, so it’s ‘goalpost shifting’ to ask if your breathless enthusiasm about the power of the ‘net roots’ makes the slightest sense anywhere outside of the US? Perhaps instead of ‘deep, dark cave’ you should have just said ‘London’. I’d really be interested to know how many people you know here who you think could give a rat’s arse who Matthew Yglesias, Ezra Klein or the ‘net roots’ are? In my case, on a good day, I think I could count them on the finger of one finger…

74

tomslee 03.17.10 at 1:25 pm

Example: I’m quite happy to believe that students find Wikipedia useful in writing essays – see recent First Monday paper here: http://www.uic.edu/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2830/2476. I find it very useful in the same ways. But does that mean that the quality of student essays has improved since Wikipedia became available? I’d be interested to hear from those who read them whether it has.

75

tomslee 03.17.10 at 1:28 pm

@engels – and Matthew Hindman (http://press.princeton.edu/titles/8781.html) makes a good case that digital activism has not broadened political participation within the US much either.

76

ajay 03.17.10 at 1:52 pm

it’s ‘goalpost shifting’ to ask if your breathless enthusiasm about the power of the ‘net roots’ makes the slightest sense anywhere outside of the US?

OK, then, what about the election protests in Iran? Probably the most significant single event in Iranian politics since the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And largely organised online.

77

nick s 03.17.10 at 2:00 pm

The broader point here is that the internet has greatly broadened our sense of what can be considered ‘knowable’ or ‘learnable’ in everyday life: it gives everything a potential backstory or a genealogy, and creates an opportunity for everything to be a potential contributor to other backstories or genealogies. The fountain pen in your grandparents’ drawer, the newspapers used to wrap old china. Manufactured objects have sources, craft objects can be compared to their peers, people can be placed.

78

tomslee 03.17.10 at 2:14 pm

@ajay (75) – Evgeny Morozov argues, convincingly to me, “not so much”: http://www.evgenymorozov.com/morozov_twitter_dissent.pdf (short PDF)

79

engels 03.17.10 at 2:56 pm

Look, the one truly wonderful advantage of the internet is that it’s the world’s first information and communication system where no one is in charge. Or could be.

You’re right, Nabakov, it’s a completely decentralised anarchistic utopia, as Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos will surely tell you.

80

alex 03.17.10 at 4:33 pm

Indeed, switching off the internet would probably involve the consent of half-a-dozen people, maybe. Say a few more, but that’s the actual underlying reality. Start talking about severing a few undersea cables, there’s whole areas of the world you could black out without anybody’s consent at all… [If you had a submarine and a hardy crew of seadogs, of course].

81

chris y 03.17.10 at 4:51 pm

Not long ago, most of west Africa was blacked out not merely with nobody’s consent, but with nobody’s ill-will. The cable just went. It would be harder to kill North America or eurasia, there are more connections.

82

bob mcmanus 03.17.10 at 5:00 pm

I think I am more with Engels than with Holbo. Something gained, something of equivalent value lost, and I think we can rarely understand what has been lost once it is gone, or even recognize that something has been lost. There may not be hard limits to the collective knowledgebase, but I know there are such limits to the individual. I sometimes feel like an index or precis, my knowledge is much broader but more shallow than it was thirty years ago. And thus all the Interwebs may just be an algae bloom on a sea gone stagnant.

In any case, I have an urge to read some Henry Adams. Probably online.

83

ajay 03.17.10 at 5:17 pm

Indeed, switching off the internet would probably involve the consent of half-a-dozen people, maybe.

alex, destroying most of the world could be done with the consent of four people. (Barack Obama, Robert Gates, and the captain and weapons officer of an US ballistic missile submarine.) In fact, you probably really only need Obama and Gates, and the other two would just follow orders.
The ability to destroy something isn’t the same as control of it.

84

Substance McGravitas 03.17.10 at 6:13 pm

Something gained, something of equivalent value lost

Precious precious work-hours.

85

AcademicLurker 03.17.10 at 6:32 pm

“Look, the one truly wonderful advantage of the internet is that it’s the world’s first information and communication system where no one is in charge. Or could be.”

I think that this is basically sound (if a bit exaggerated). The control of content on the internet is certainly much less centralized than in any mass communications medium that has gone before. Compare it to, for example, broadcast television or the record industry pre-1995.

True, it could be shut down by a few people, but I don’t that quite speaks to the point in #66.

86

alex 03.17.10 at 7:10 pm

Chill, ajay, it was just an observation. The availability of information is great, and while wikipedia, say, gives the impression of being irrepressibly public, it could be taken away from you, me and anyone else much more easily than could a book from our shelves. Facebook could go dark tomorrow. People are in charge of the internet, and right now it’s lucky they’re nice [-ish].

If you want to have some fun, trawl around for people discussing ‘cyber-war’ on various gung-ho sites – ‘defensetech’ is one. They’re pretty convinced that Foreign Bad Guys are going to come crawling down the wires any day soon, and we’ll all be Denying Service competitively round the globe, or thrashing around amidst the virus-strewn wreckage of our systems…

87

engels 03.17.10 at 7:16 pm

I don’t know about the infrastructure of the internet but rather a lot of internet content is controlled by a very small number of companies in the US, isn’t it? Broadcast television at least was less centralised on an international level.

88

engels 03.17.10 at 7:29 pm

And let’s not get into the fact that said companies have also collected a volume of private information about each of us that makes the Stasi look like a sixth form statistics project…

89

geo 03.17.10 at 7:39 pm

bob mcmanus @81: we can rarely understand what has been lost once it is gone, or even recognize that something has been lost

Exactly. Which doesn’t mean the gains aren’t real, just that we should usually expect corresponding losses and listen patiently to people who point them out.

Also @81: There may not be hard limits to the collective knowledgebase, but I know there are such limits to the individual.

Again, right on the mark, I think. It’s the species-form that’s in play, ultimately. Will we continue as individuals, with more or less the same physical/cognitive/emotional dimensions as now, or will we gradually develop into a more unitary life-form, with vastly greater cognitive capacity but a very different (or no) emotional life — a kind of hive mind, or a Borg, or (for Arthur C. Clarke fans) the Overmind?

90

Substance McGravitas 03.17.10 at 7:41 pm

I don’t know about the infrastructure of the internet but rather a lot of internet content is controlled by a very small number of companies in the US, isn’t it?

It depends on what you mean by “controlled”. I do a lot of stuff via Google, and they can take away my blog and email any time they like. If they weren’t providing X service there’d be another service, and so on. But those are tools and not content, and thus far my content is uncontrolled, for better or worse. Mind you I’m not a revolutionary communist.

91

magistra 03.17.10 at 7:50 pm

tomslee@71. I would argue that the web has increased creativity in many spheres because it allows far more amateur creators to find an audience. In most societies there are a few forms of amateur cultural creation that can find an audience, but many that find it very hard to do so. So for example, in eighteenth century England if you were an upper class woman you could find a social audience for piano-playing and water colours, but if you were a would-be novelist it was a lot harder. Today, many teenagers could get their friends to come and hear them play in a band, but not to hear them read their poetry or discuss astronomy, even if they’re a better poet or astronomer than a guitarist. (To pick up on a earlier point, some tastes are socially generated, shared and appreciated, but not all of them).
If you have an interested audience, then there is a lot more incentive to write/make a video/customise a My Little Pony or whatever else it is you want to create. Most of the stuff I write on my blog would not have got written down otherwise, even if they are ideas I might have discussed with friends. And some of what I’ve written on my blog has then filtered into my published work.
Whether encouraging amateur creativity is entirely positive is a different point – there’s obviously a lot of mediocre material that gets produced. But some of the new voices that get heard are genuinely interesting, even if they’re not commercially viable.

92

engels 03.17.10 at 7:53 pm

I think ‘My content is uncontrolled’ ought to mean ‘I have the right, or the power, to say whatever I want’ not ‘Thus far I have said whatever I’ve wanted and nobody’s stopped me.’

93

Substance McGravitas 03.17.10 at 8:04 pm

I think ‘My content is uncontrolled’ ought to mean ‘I have the right, or the power, to say whatever I want’ not ‘Thus far I have said whatever I’ve wanted and nobody’s stopped me.’

Well, good luck on getting that right or power to say whatever you want. But let’s imagine that Google erases everything. I have a backup so I publish it elsewhere. I can’t see a sense in which the fact of control will inhibit what I do beyond an inconvenience.

94

engels 03.17.10 at 8:05 pm

If Google deleted your blog or email you could try to move it elsewhere. If they stopped listing you in their searches you’d have fewer options, I think.

95

Substance McGravitas 03.17.10 at 8:14 pm

If they stopped listing you in their searches you’d have fewer options, I think.

Options for what? Not sure what you mean: I am a nobody on the internet now and I’d be a nobody on the internet after some imagined removal from a search index.

96

alex 03.17.10 at 8:27 pm

Until you get the knock on the door…

97

engels 03.17.10 at 8:29 pm

Well if your argument is ‘I’m just a nobody so I don’t care if Google can stop more than a handful of people hearing what I’ve got to say, nobody cares anyway,’ then you win, I guess…

98

Substance McGravitas 03.17.10 at 8:35 pm

Well if your argument is ‘I’m just a nobody so I don’t care if Google can stop more than a handful of people hearing what I’ve got to say, nobody cares anyway,’ then you win, I guess…

My argument is that I could still write stuff and still communicate with people, and I would. As far as I know none of the people who bother commenting on whatever silliness I author has done so because they found me via Google.

99

piglet 03.17.10 at 8:47 pm

“I sometimes feel like an index or precis, my knowledge is much broader but more shallow than it was thirty years ago.”

I don’t get that feeling but maybe I’m deluding myself? I’m curious what exactly your perception is based on. In my own experience, the internet has done wonders both ways. I can afford to inform myself about a broad range of topics because it’s so easy to do. If I had to go look up literature in a library I probably wouldn’t have the time. At the same time the internet helps me pursue a topic to whatever depth I would want. I could do that without the internet but it is a lot easier to read the scientific literature online and the possibility of easy and direct interaction with others having similar interests is very valuable.

100

Substance McGravitas 03.17.10 at 9:33 pm

I’m just a nobody so I don’t care if Google can stop more than a handful of people hearing what I’ve got to say

Oh I get it! I’m supposed to win the internet! And in one field, I HAVE.

101

George 03.17.10 at 11:53 pm

When dealing with a problem, I nowdays find myself thinking in terms of how to frame a question about it, rather than trying to actually solve it. I think this is different than ‘before’.

102

engels 03.17.10 at 11:59 pm

My argument is that I could still write stuff and still communicate with people, and I would.

Glad to hear it. Anyway I wasn’t trying to claim Google can censor your blog. I think they have a great deal of power potentially to influence where the attention of their users is directed. And they are a small American organisation with the capacity to influence in this way billions of people in different parts of the globe. Pace Nabakov, I don’t call such a system ‘de-centralised’.

103

Substance McGravitas 03.18.10 at 12:07 am

I think they have a great deal of power potentially to influence where the attention of their users is directed.

We certainly agree on this, but there are social and creative uses for the internet that Google is not much good as a portal for. I don’t necessarily have to go through them to get a picture to grandma for instance, although of course they’re giving me every opportunity to.

104

engels 03.18.10 at 4:04 am

I think you think I said that Google controls the whole internet or something like that. I didn’t. I said that a small number of mostly American companies, of which Google is one, have ultimate control over a big chunk of the things that most people in the world do on the internet. And this in response to the claim that ‘no-one is in charge’.

105

Substance McGravitas 03.18.10 at 5:09 am

I said that a small number of mostly American companies, of which Google is one, have ultimate control over a big chunk of the things that most people in the world do on the internet.

No, what you said was “I don’t know about the infrastructure of the internet but rather a lot of internet content is controlled by a very small number of companies in the US, isn’t it?” to which I said “It depends on what you mean by ‘controlled’ ” and went on from there. In other words, it looked like you were arguing that the phone company controlled telephone conversations, which is true in a sense that is very important to those who haven’t paid their bills, but sounds a little more tinfoil-hatty in relation to the ordinary use of the phone. I think we agree that it’s bad that one collapsing or rapacious or even mostly nice company controls such a large chunk of culture.

106

maidhc 03.18.10 at 8:04 am

If you want to learn guitar, here is a postgraduate course:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VrCxamgu-as

If I could have access to something like this when I was an 20-year totally blown away by Amos Garrett’s playing with Ian and Sylvia, Maria Muldaur, etc. … maybe I could have gone somewhere.

Now I only have odd moments to watch youtube guitar lessons because I have to work to keep up the house payments.

If only people still wrote poetry, someone could pen an ode upon my plight.

107

alex 03.18.10 at 8:36 am

Oh, what a shame
Cultural talents wasted
Vile economy!

108

sg 03.18.10 at 11:23 am

engels, I agree with you about google in some ways, but also I think it’s a bit overstated because google’s power derives from its usefulness, which derives from its algorithm, which makes it a kind of physical law on the internet rather than a directed company, and if they ever tried to tamper too much with that they’d probably lose a lot of control quickly. So while it’s definitely not decentralised, the power they wield is by necessity kind of passive. Though obviously when they threaten to withdraw from a country, not so much.

109

tomslee 03.18.10 at 1:17 pm

sg, I think that picture of google is about 4 years old. Google has been tampering a lot with its search results – see, for example, the “Universal Search” initiative here which has led to the current mishmash of external results, Google News, Google Maps, Google Video, Google Images, and now real-time feeds that fill the first page of many search results. Its “algorithm” is a blending of many many special cases, and the mix is a human directed one. Yes Google does claim to be slave to its algorithm, eg when the racist picture of Michelle Obama topped the search rankings for her name, but any truth to that claim is quite a narrow one.

110

Platonist 03.18.10 at 2:02 pm

This cheerleading session keeps reminding me of a previous non-debate on Crooked Timber in which everyone had a heyday dumping on Adorno. And I now vaguley recall what struck me as so relevant about Adorno the last time I read him many years ago.

On one hand, he claims the technological decentralization of power dramatically increases the knowledge and technical capacity of the population. On the other hand, he suggests the accompanying rise of the cult of the amateur leads to a phony form of spontaneity and freedom that devalues real knowledge and expertise (and the critical power it harnesses), crippling all serious critical capacity, creating an illusion of no need for social and political change, and increasing the opacity of real sources of economic and political power.

Adorno was pretty dumb, though. I hear he didn’t like Mickey Mouse.

111

Substance McGravitas 03.18.10 at 3:28 pm

OMG now the dumb people get to think in public.

112

piglet 03.18.10 at 3:48 pm

“When dealing with a problem, I nowdays find myself thinking in terms of how to frame a question about it, rather than trying to actually solve it.”

Can you be more specific? Perhaps give an example? I am not sure what you are trying to say. Me thinks that people have thought about problems in terms of “framing a question” before the internet. Do you mean that we now tend to restrict the questions we ask to those that can readily be answered by google?

“On one hand, he claims the technological decentralization of power dramatically increases the knowledge and technical capacity of the population. On the other hand, he suggests the accompanying rise of the cult of the amateur leads to a phony form of spontaneity and freedom that devalues real knowledge and expertise (and the critical power it harnesses)”

Perhaps this is true, but why? I pointed out way earlier that it seems there is no evidence that the internet has made us collectively smarter despite its astonishing power but I’m looking for an explanation of this phenomenon.

113

geo 03.18.10 at 3:50 pm

alex @106: One syllable short of a haiku.

114

Alex 03.18.10 at 4:02 pm

If I may introduce some actual data: here’s the Arbor Networks ATLAS 2009 Internet measurement report. Note that Google accounts for 5.2% of total Internet traffic, and the top five CDNs for 15%.

115

engels 03.18.10 at 4:12 pm

Well, quite. And later in the report:

Consolidation of Content
In 2007, thousands of ASNs contributed 50% of content
In 2009, 150 ASNs contribute 50% of all Internet traffic

Not really my definition of anarchism.

116

sg 03.18.10 at 4:18 pm

Thanks tomslee, I don’t pay that much attention to how google mangles its own search model, and I’m much more inclined to engels point of view based on that sort of information.

The internet still rocks, though.

117

Martin James 03.18.10 at 4:19 pm

Entering the Meaning of Life into I’m feeling lucky in google returned the wikipedia entry
fro the meaning of life

Which contains the following:

One value system suggested by social psychologists, broadly called Terror Management Theory, states that all human meaning is derived out of a fundamental fear of death, whereby values are selected when they allow us to escape the mental reminder of death.

Internet or not “You’re born, some stuff happens, then you die.”

118

alex 03.18.10 at 4:28 pm

Bum. Make it ‘Oh, what a pity’, if you insist on absolute separation of syllabic sounds. [Fie on your purism, say I, for what is the internet if not a place for the defiant amateur to produce crap and technically-deficient poetry?]

119

alex 03.18.10 at 4:29 pm

@116 – that explains all the porn, then…

120

tomslee 03.18.10 at 4:45 pm

To add to Alex’s consolidation story, a preview in Wired of the next round of the Arbor Networks report suggests that Google now accounts for about 10% of traffic. But Facebook has now passed google.com as the highest traffic individual domain, so our ultimate webby master is not yet sorted out.

121

eudoxis 03.18.10 at 5:03 pm

Google up?

122

Biba 03.18.10 at 5:53 pm

I’m a living breathing translating portal.
Living in northern Mexico and being a native English speaker I’m approached, emailed, texted and phoned everyday by Spanish speakers sat in front of their screens staring at something written in English that they CAN read but do not understand. I had to stop going into to a Starbucks to check my email between appointments because what began as a trickle of 20 somethings asking me ..(But what does it mean… when Liam Gallagher raises two fingers in a reverse peace sign? What is a … heat pump and how can it heat water and cool a fridge?) grew to a regimented ambush.
Look at Wikipedia in Spanish … it’s a vacant lot.

The internet experience in English is very different from the experience in other languages .. WHY? That’s a cultural “why” not a technical why.

123

Biba 03.18.10 at 6:01 pm

…”Liam Gallagher raises two fingers…” … er … interpretation of an image not text … my first remembered experience along these lines is being cornered on the campus of Georgia Tech to explain the word “bollocks” … from the Sex Pistols.
But now it’s everyday unrelenting … like the sun.

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Alex 03.18.10 at 7:54 pm

Not really my definition of anarchism.

However, a lot of those will be hosting or CDN operators – entities whose raison d’etre is to deliver content from a potentially very large number of producers to end users. That was almost the main lesson from the 2009 ATLAS exercise. Rather than either Big Content owning everything, or else Big US Telcos carrying everything as a tier 1 operators’ cartel, we’re seeing consolidation into a fairly large pool of applications/service operators. Which is probably good, as the capital requirement to run a search engine or a video-sharing site is much less than it is to build a tier 1 network. Also, if the top 150 ASNs account for 50% of the traffic, this argues for a really low four-firm concentration ratio.

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Alex 03.18.10 at 7:55 pm

That Wired story refers to the same report.

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Alex 03.18.10 at 7:57 pm

And, to triple post like a muppet, the market for transit and peering has got more diverse rather than less. The era of all the EU-Asia traffic going through North America on AS701 is over; the CAIDA Skitter chart looks a lot different to the one from 2002 on my wall.

127

Patrick 03.18.10 at 8:23 pm

I grew up pre-Internet only because my family could not afford a computer. I remember spending a lot of time looking at science books, like nature field-guides, and climbing trees and thinking lot while up there. I grew to enjoying thinking about things more than doing them; hence, I nature evolved into a philosophy grad student, but waste a lot of time on the internet, as useful as it is.

128

ajay 03.19.10 at 10:48 am

123-125: oh, well, you can prove anything with facts. This is more important than that. This is about Sergey Brin stopping us all from reading Proust!

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tomslee 03.19.10 at 12:26 pm

I defer to Alex on matters involving bits, and I did mistake the Wired article for a preview of new stuff (it got slashdotted yesterday for some reason) rather than old hat.

But the report does make clear that there is a consolidation of traffic going on, as the role of aggregator sites fronted by relatively rich applications grows and peer-to-peer traffic falls, and consolidation has been a continuing trend for the past few years. And while Sergey Brin can’t stop us reading Proust, Steve Jobs can stop us looking at naked German legs, which comes pretty high up on my definition of control.

I don’t think anyone here has been arguing that the Internet is a Bad Thing. Any medium that lets me read SMcG’s dig about winning the internet, or the phrase on magistra’s blog about King’s College “making headlines all over the medievalist world” has to have good bits to it. But there is precious little evidence that this activity has significantly “democratized” cultural consumption or production. I guess we’ll have to wait a few years to see if the Internet can turn John Holbo into a guitar player, and what activities he stops doing instead.

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tomslee 03.19.10 at 12:39 pm

Lost my Naked German Leg link. Here it is.

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engels 03.19.10 at 5:45 pm

The trouble with saying things like ‘there’s a low four-firm concentration’ is it’s saying that power isn’t centralised on the internet _in comparison with other markets_. But internet companies aren’t just replacing older forms of capitalist media like TV or print publishing they’re also sucking in whole areas of life which previously were not part of the formal economy at all. So the fact that say someone in Portugal’s sharing jokes with his friends about what he did last night might be mediated through servers in California imo instances a trend towards greater concentration of power and (potential) control, not less.

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geo 03.20.10 at 6:17 pm

@128: Sergey Brin stopping us all from reading Proust!

Television’s fault too, of course. Be fair.

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